The Saudi women’s rights activist who found freedom and horror on the internet

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Born in Saudi Arabia to a devout Muslim family, Manal al-Sharif spent her childhood under the belief that women were second-class citizens. In her small world, every information she found was carefully crafted, censored in such a way as to quell any feelings of rebellion.

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Thanks to the internet, which arrived in her country in 1999, she was able to free herself from these inherited misconceptions and understand the oppression she was living under.

“Under an authoritarian regime, you are controlled by fear; you have so many questions, but no one will answer them,” she said. Nerdshala Prof. “It describes my childhood in Saudi Arabia very well.”


“But when the internet came, my questions got answered. It is the power of technology to break the black box in which people live when they do not have access to information. ,

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More widely influenced by the Internet and technology, Al-Sharif earned a degree in computer science, becoming the first Saudi woman to specialize. information securityFor which he has a lot of talent.

However, while Web Who is responsible for freeing al-Sharif from his intellectual prison, complicating his relationship with the platforms he has created. She is torn between a very personal sense of respect and hatred for the spread of knowledge and the Internet’s ability to connect the farthest corners of the world.

right to drive

Although the advent of the Internet paved the way for al-Sharif’s “enlightenment” as she describes it, it was social media that gave her the first opportunity to stand up for authority.

Al-Sharif says he realized the power of social media during the Arab Spring, the early 2010s, during which a series of pro-democracy rebellions broke out across the region, including Saudi Arabia.

During this time, dissidents used social media not only to discuss and debate socio-political issues, but also to organize and coordinate demonstrations to maximize the impact.

Protests in Yemen during the Arab Spring.

“It was interesting to see how social media gave us a voice,” Al-Sharif said. “In a country where your opinion is not welcome, online anonymity has given me room to question my belief system.”

“I could connect with activists around the world to exchange ideas and have discussions that could never have happened otherwise. Twitter was our virtual civil society, the parliament we never had.

Most importantly, the world was paying attention, she says. Issues that were too local were made international by social media, which shifted the balance of power in favor of collectivism.

Excited by this experience and hungry for ways to make a difference in his country, al-Sharif identified an opportunity.

At that time women were not allowed to drive motor vehicles in Saudi Arabia. Instead, they had to rely on male companions for transportation, which placed significant limits on the freedom of divorcees such as al-Sharif. To break the taboo (since there was no actual law against the act), al-Sharif took to the streets in his car, using his iPhone to capture the moment.

On YouTube, the video has garnered 700,000 views in just a few days, and more since then. And the Facebook and Twitter accounts al-Sharif later became the basis for a community of hundreds of thousands under the banner created: “Women2Drive”.

Later, Saudi authorities arrested al-Sharif from his home early in the morning. Official Charges: woman driving, Before his arrest, al-Sharif was able to warn a friend that police had gathered outside; He created a storm on social media by live-tweeting the arrest.

During the nine days al-Sharif was detained, women in Saudi Arabia became the right to drive global story, Reportedly, Hillary Clinton heard of the arrest and asked the Saudi Foreign Ministry to apply pressure.

According to al-Sharif, social media had played an important role not only in raising awareness of the issue, but also in ensuring his eventual release. Saudi Arabia hates bad publicity, she explained, and social media was the perfect tool to create it.

“It wasn’t just about the right to drive, however, it was about the right to exist,” she told us. “Driving was the most public act of defiance; it was top of mind every time you hit the road, so it was a useful symbol.”

In June 2018, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia finally lifted the driving ban; A small victory for al-Sharif and the Women2Drive movement, though the country continues to fight for women’s rights.

Weaponizing social media

However, social media hasn’t always been a force for good in al-Sharif’s life. Her activism began to gain attention, and as conservative media began covering the story, she faced online abuse from people who thought she humiliated herself and her country.

As a result of her newfound notoriety, al-Sharif was “gradually pushed out” from her job at the oil company Saudi Aramco, which supported her desire to work in cyber security (which was highly unusual at the time), But only for reluctant negative publicity.

“It was a high price to pay, but you lose the battle to win the war,” he told us. “If I could turn back time, I wouldn’t change anything.”

Although al-Sharif developed mechanisms to deal with online criticism and vitriol, he could not follow through with the way dictatorial powers were beginning to weaponize social media platforms.

In fact, al-Sharif deleted all of his social profiles in 2018, even though it meant breaking the line of communication with thousands of his followers. He did so on stage during a speech at the EU summit in Stockholm. Journalist Jamal Khashoggi murdered by the Kingdom of Saudi.

Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist who was assassinated by the regime in 2018.

When people like al-Sharif took to social media to discuss the killing and launch criticism at the Saudi regime, they were “washed out” by trolls and bots (known as “flies” in Saudi Arabia) , she says. These automated accounts were clearly designed to further the monarchy’s agenda, intimidate dissidents, and quell any rumors of its role in Khashoggi’s assassination.

In the weeks following the news of the murder, these were some of the trending hashtags on Twitter in the country (translated from the original Arabic):

  • #kingdom_of_justice
  • #We_Renew_Allegiance_to_King_Salman_and_Mohammed
  • #I_am_Saudi_I_Protect_Saudi
Trending topics on Twitter in Saudi Arabia, October 2018.

Nor is Saudi Arabia the only country accused of soliciting discord, spreading misinformation and abusing bot farms to crush its opponents. For example, Russia was found near Bots used to tamper with voters Before the 2016 US election, which resulted in the presidency of Donald Trump. And China is known to use fake Twitter accounts. spread pro-government message During the recent protests in Hong Kong and the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I went from someone who completely believed in social media to someone who was intimidated by it,” Al-Sharif said. “During this period, I felt very disappointed. Suddenly we had lost a platform that gave us a voice.”

“The tools we used to free ourselves are now being used for oppression,” he said. It was an intense discovery.”

Where do we go from here?

Life is calm for al-Sharif following social media, especially now that she is living in self-exile in Australia. She says she has been estranged from Saudi Arabia since leaving (though she did come back to obtain a Saudi driving license), but is happy with the opportunity to reflect otherwise.

Regardless of his opinion of the companies that run the world’s largest social media and Internet platforms, al-Sharif is optimistic about the possibilities society can find a way to harness their benefits. And Keep their destructive potential under control.

After leaving her job as CISO at the University of New South Wales, she has recently turned her attention to a new project: the Ethical Technologists Society, an organization she founded to raise awareness of digital rights violations Was. She has also started a podcast called Tech4Evil, in which it deals with the abuse of centralized power, surveillance capitalism, data privacy and other related issues.

When asked how she would begin solving problems with today’s algorithm- and advertising-based Internet models, al-Sharif explained that issues can only be resolved through dialogue. She says technologists are guilty of speaking the language of technologists, but now it is important to get the message across to a wider audience.

“Ultimately, people should boycott companies that betray their trust. The power of the network has made these companies what they are,” she told us. “We don’t want to lose sight of the power of technology, but we also don’t want people to give up their digital rights for convenience. There is a middle way. ,

Although money is tight and his plans have not yet been fully revealed, Al-Sharif and the Society of Ethical Technologists will attempt to create an “ethical technology index” to help people make informed decisions about companies that are involved, with whom they converse. She envisions that such a system could also be used to hold technology companies accountable for the consequences of their actions.

The organization will also push for greater transparency in this area. Al-Sharif reserved some praise for Twitter, which recently started a service It highlights any information requests it receives from governments, and reddits something similar, But she says these companies should go further, providing full access to their algorithms for independent audits, particularly Facebook.

There are also subtle rebellions that can be practiced by everyone,…

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